Webers Method of Sociology Executive Summary

Sociology Q’s

1. How is action different from mere behavior, according to Weber? Give examples.

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For Weber, action and behavior are different in the sense that behavior is a purely mechanistic or mechanical movement of the body. It does not take into consideration an “other”. Action on the other hand is more deliberate in that it takes into consideration the behaviors of others and anticipates their responses or is predicated upon their initial expressions of behavior. Action is social, whereas behavior is essentially individualized and performed without any connectivity to or consideration for one’s society.

A behavior could become an action—i.e., a social action. Weber determined an action to be social whenever a person applied a subjective meaning to a particular behavior. For example, a person who washes his car because it is dirty is simply engaging in a behavior. A person who washes his car because he wants to look presentable to his colleagues at work when he arrives in the morning is engaging in an action—that is, a social action—because he has applied a subjective meaning to the behavior. The car is not simply being cleaned because it is dirty—it is being cleaned because a clean car reflects something positive about the driver and the driver wants to communicate that positivity outwardly to his colleagues so as to leave them with a favorable impression of him.

Weber went on to classify action in four ways: traditional action, affectual action, value-rational action, and instrumentally rational action. Traditional action described habitual action—action performed out of habit that, while still possessed of a subjective meaning, was performed mainly without conscientious thought. Affectual action referred to emotional action that had meaning but was typically performed without deliberation. Value-rational action referred to self-conscious awareness of the action’s value. Instrumentally rational action referred to deliberate action performed to achieve a specific goal.

2. Does Weber’s emphasis on understanding and interpretation mean that the method of sociology is purely subjective and can never strive at objectivity? Why?

Weber was an interpretivist and thus believed that the best one could do was to interpret social actions rather than view them as objective “facts” the way Durkheim did. However, once the interpretation was communicated, it became a social action as well, and would then be interpreted by others. Weber’s sociological method, in this sense, followed in the tradition of the Hegelian dialectic. Instead of focusing on objectivity, the aim was to contribute to the synthesis of new ideas. Weber’s own method was such that is insisted that all underlying meaning attributed to social actions was subjective and could never realistically be objectively defined or determined as true. Everyone was interpreting everyone and everything else, filtering all information through their own lens of experience, knowledge, understanding, and so on.

However, Weber’s sense of the bureaucracy—or, rather, the perfect bureaucracy—was that it could only be achieved once it was completely impersonalized—i.e., completely mechanistic, consisting of regimented and regulated behaviors rather than actions. The bureaucracy could be objectified because it was like a machine—a system, like a car engine or a factory. The mechanization of human behavior could be applied to government through the process of bureaucratization. The problem was whether such a form of control was really appropriate or not. It is likely that his WWI experiences showed him that it was not.

3. What is the difference between value-rational action and instrumentally-rational action? Give an example. Why is this distinction important to Weber?

Value-rational action and instrumentally-rational action are related in the sense that the latter is predicated by the former. Even in value-rational action an end is generally perceived, although it may be vague and unable to be measured. The main difference is that instrumentally-rational actions are more calculated to have a desired effect, whereas value-rational actions are associated with form, aesthetic, and ritualistic behavior.

Value-rational action is action to which some inherent value is attributed by the doer. The end or outcome of the behavior is not important because the action is meaningful in and of itself and has value as such. For example, voting in an election would be a value-rational action. The doer does not know what impact the vote will have but understands that the action has value in a democratic society; thus, the doer is compelled to act by casting his vote. Another example of a value rational action would be any other type of ritual. Voting can be understood as a political ritual in a democracy. Saying the pledge of allegiance every day before school would be another. A religious ritual would also fit this description—i.e., saying one’s morning and evening prayers, fasting, etc.

Instrumentally-rational action is a social action that is performed with a specific end in mind. The doer knows what the action is meant to achieve and does the action deliberately and specifically to achieve that end. An example of instrumentally-rational action would be a worker who performs a task for his manager, who has promised the worker a reward for getting the job done on time and under budget.

4. What are ideal types for Weber? How are they important to interpret social action?

The ideal type for Weber is that which is consistent, thematically speaking, across a specific range of experiences of a particular phenomenon. The ideal type does not refer to a perfect form or pure form but rather to cognitive form—the idea of form. Weber described it thus: “An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those onesidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct” (Shills & Finch, 2002, p. 90). In other words, ideal types are interpretations of social actions, and as with social actions, Weber identified four sorts of ideal types—the goal-rationality type, the value-rationality type, the emotional-rationality type, and the unconscious habit type. Each social action, it can therefore be seen, corresponds to an ideal type.

Ideal types are important for interpreting social action because they represent the accumulation of data—the observations of social action and how themes appear among the data sources—i.e., among the people whose actions are being interpreted. The ideal type proposes that there are common characteristics to every sort of social action and that those characteristics can be distilled and understood via the construction of the ideal type. The ideal type, however, is not to be considered as an objective reality but rather as a construction of the essence of an action. The ideal type highlights the features of the social action that are most likely to be found and thus presents itself as a sort of measure for understanding and interpreting social actions. It can be used, in short, as a kind of baseline.

5. What is “capitalistic economic action,” according to Weber? Give an example of economic action that is not capitalistic. How can capitalistic economic action it be rationalized.

A capitalistic economic action is one that is predicated on profit-driven activities of exchange. A business for example conducts its operations for the sake of profit. It begins with a set amount of capital and assets and aims to end with more capital or assets than it had when it began. In other words, the business in a capitalistic system intends to profit from its labor: it is not a system of bartering or of equal exchanges of goods in and of themselves. The capitalistic economic action factors in to the value of the good, the cost to produce (labor and materials) as well as the utility the good or service can have for the use (a subjective value determined theoretically by the market but not necessarily). Once labor and materials have been paid for by the business, the profit is that which the business nets after costs are factored out. The business owner thus earns a living by managing the operation and profiting from the exchange.

An example of economic action that is not capitalistic would be the barter exchange, which occurs through sites like Craigslist, where an owner of one good might swap it with an owner of another good for one of perceived equal value but that satisfies a need for each of the participants. There is no profit obtained by either in the exchange: it is an even exchange.

Capitalistic economic action can be rationalized by pointing out that it enables profit to be realized in the sphere of production rather than in the sphere of exchange. The owner of the means of production seeks to profit from the application of labor to the production of the good or service, and this profit helps to drive economic activity for the society as a whole. The profit is used to purchase goods or services from other produces, which enables the system to work.

6. Name at least 3 preconditions for the rationalization of capitalistic economic action and explain their relevance.

The ability to have rational capital accounting is the main precondition needed for the rationalization of capitalistic economic action. This allows the business to know the value of the goods or services it produces and thus to maintain an ordered balance sheet. Accounting itself, however, is predicated upon multiple preconditions. Three of these are: 1) that a free labor market exists, 2) that appropriation of the means of production is possible, and 3) that rational technology is available for the mechanization of labor—i.e., industrialization—can achieve better returns on the investment of capital.

The free labor market is needed because it provides the basis for the moral arrangement between the owner and the labor—the laborer agrees to work for an agreed upon wage. The owner then uses that labor to create an opportunity for himself to profit through the commercialization process—i.e., through the system of capitalistic economic action. The appropriation of the means of production is required because unless the business has access to the tools and machines needed for production and can get them from the free market, the entire system is imperiled from that outset as it will not be possible to calculate the costs of production otherwise. The owner must be able to take possession, privately, of the means of production to know what the costs are. Otherwise, one is essentially using someone else’s means and the system is more akin to feudalism than to capitalism. Finally, the use of rational technology is required so as to limit or reduce costs associated with labor and thus facilitate the attainment of profit/capital.

7. What are social classes, according to Weber?

In a capitalist society, the social classes according to Weber are the propertied upper class, the property-less white collar worker class, the petty bourgeoisie (the lower middle class—small business/merchants, semi-autonomous peasants), and the manual labor working class (blue collar working class). As a capitalistic society grows, the white collar class should grow as well according to Weber. Weber also contended that, unlike as Marx theorized, there is no real polarization among the classes—i.e., they are not at odds with one another but rather are integrated harmoniously in a happily functioning capitalistic system. Each benefits from the other. The manual labor working class benefits from the propertied upper class, which owns the means of production and provides for the opportunity for employment (jobs) for the lower classes. The petty bourgeoisie profits in the exchange of labor for wages between the upper and lower classes by offering goods and services in exchange for capital accrued over the course of time by the laborer and the property owner, and the white collar worker benefits by laboring in the management and organization of the various groups and parts of society—whether in business or in government.

Every social class is therefore deemed essential and necessary to the functioning of the whole of society. Each plays an integral part in the capitalistic system, and each benefits in its own way, based upon what each brings to the system of exchange. The lower class will bring manual labor. The white collar working class will bring skilled labor. The properties class will bring the tools needed for large scale production. The petty bourgeoisie will bring the goods and services exchanged in the market place and purchased by the other classes.

8. What are the consequences of bureaucracy, according to Weber?

The consequences of bureaucracy, according to Weber, are two-fold, or rather double-edged. On the one hand, bureaucracy can implement a mechanical system in which behavior is regulated and somewhat automated. It is an impersonal system that allows for society’s important governmental functions to be overseen, managed and executed like a well-run engine, so long as the system is de-personalized and the operations consist of the execution of behaviors rather than the performance of social actions. A bureaucracy cannot be social in function, otherwise its purpose as a management tool is undermined, for it is via social action that subjective meanings are attributed to action, which can lead to confusion, misinterpretation and conflict. The bureaucracy should alleviate confusion and reduce conflict by limiting conduct to the realm of the behavioral.

On the other hand, a bureaucracy could become corrupted and lead to all sorts of troubles, as Weber himself experienced during WWI, as inefficiencies and dangers can be compounded as humans working in the bureaucratic system do not limit themselves to managing and overseeing behavior but rather introduce meaning to their actions and thus move their conduct from the realm of the behavioral to the realm of social action. They are no longer working for the utility of society through the bureaucracy but rather for themselves that they may achieve some greater rank in the bureaucracy or some favor from those they serve, or they may disregard the standards of behavior recommended by the bureaucracy and engage in shoddy performance that undermines the integrity of the system and its overall design. Bureaucracy, in other words, is only as efficient as its human parts are depersonalized and inhuman—which implies a certain contradiction.

9. What is domination according to Weber? How is it different from coercion?

Domination, according to Weber, is predicated on the voluntary compliance of subordinates to the rules and regulations of the perceived authority. Compliance is generally given because the authority is deemed by the subordinates to be legitimate. If the authority is deemed to be illegitimate, the use of coercion is generally likely to be required. Domination does not require the use of force to ensure compliance from subordinates in society. The subordinates recognize the legitimacy of the authorities and have no problem obeying their rule.

Weber identified three types of domination: charismatic domination, traditional domination, and rational-legal domination. Charismatic domination was based on the perceptions of the authority’s greatness, power, strength, heroic qualities, or holiness. The subordinate would invariably respect this authority type because of these perceived qualities and no force or coercion would be required to move the subordinate to compliance.

The second type was traditional domination, which referred to long-standing or long-held customs typically found in an old culture where norms are passed down from one generation to the next. Every generation respects the rule and authority in place as it has been hallowed by time and sanctioned by use. In traditional domination, the subordinate respects the authority because the subordinate respects the traditions and customs of his culture.

Finally, there is the rational-legal domination type, which characterizes most societies today: the authority is characterized neither by holiness or heroics nor by tradition made sacred by time. In rational-legal domination, the subordinate is motivated to compliance out of respect for the rules or the rule of law. It is a form of rules-based domination.

10. What is the difference between class societies and rank orders, according to Weber? Why is this difference significant for sociological analysis?

Class societies, according to Weber are determined by economic position within the socio-economic structure. Rank order is determined by one’s social prestige rather than by one’s relationship to production. Weber viewed social stratification as resulting from an interplay of class, rank and authority. For instance, Weber observed that not all members of the aristocratic class possessed much wealth but could wield significant social or political power. Additionally, outsider groups, such as European Jews (at least in Weber’s time) could be seen as lacking status or rank but as having power via their connections to economic channels or credit.

Class societies in pure terms are characterized by one’s relation to production and rank orders are characterized by one’s prestige, which need not be associated (though it may be) with one’s relation to production. This difference is important for sociological analysis because it impacts how one is to interpret social actions of individuals within their society, and how human interactions are based—whether the society is organized entirely by an economic principle—i.e., who owns the means of production (which was Marx’s view), or by a combination of principles, which might include the economic principle but also the political principle, the cultural principle, the religious principle, the social principle, and so on (which was essentially Weber’s view). Interpreting social action thus depends upon how one views the order or stratification of society, as this will inform one’s sense of the meaning applied to the subjective experiences of the individual.



Shils, E. A. & Finch, H. (2002). Classical Sociological Theory. New York: John Wiley

& Sons.


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